Managing Remote Agents

By Tom Sheridan

When a manager thinks of a call center or telemessaging service, a room full of agents busily typing and talking comes to mind. Think again. With newer software, coupled with high speed Internet access, this traditional model is changing. Your own Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) can process calls remotely from home while working to benefit you, not unlike call traffic being handled halfway around the world (See Implementing Remote Agent Stations).

I had been opposed to remote agent positions because of the hassle and unreliability of analog modems and A/B switches as well as having to manage employees away from our call center. I believed that our work was just too complicated to have agents working solo, and quality issues concerned me.

There were three fundamental changes that convinced me to give remote agents a real try. The first change was an operational decision to assign our CSR workforce to be either call takers or message dispatchers. Our remote

Remote agents allow MedCom to buy labor just for the call traffic spikes when they really need the help.

agents almost always serve as call takers and only take messages to subsequently be dispatched from the call center.

The second event was the widespread availability of reliable DSL and cable Internet access. This is essential for CSR data screens to work remotely like they do in the call center. The third change was the labor market in our area. Like many parts of the country, in recent years it has become tougher to find reliable help in our local market. We found that by selectively offering some or all work hours as remote hours, employees would work as “peak shavers” (working just when we needed them). We also found that our staff was more willing to put in supplemental hours remotely during times that they otherwise could not or would not work in our call center. These hours included early morning and late night. We also discovered it was easier to hire and retain good employees if this flexibility became part of their employment package.

Candidates are not hired at the outset as remote agents, but this aspect of the job is discussed at length during their interview. Remote agents must first become experienced senior-level CSRs, which takes six months or longer. They must prove themselves as reliable, competent, employees who are able to work independently. These criteria are used similarly for veteran employees who also have expressed a desire to work from home. Next, we work out the technical details including the computer, voice line, and Internet access. There is no set policy as to how these things are provided. We have found that most of our employees desiring remote status already are Internet savvy and have a PC with high speed Internet access.

A time is scheduled to meet at their home to install the software and set up remote access to the call center. I believe the home visit is important to verify that there is a quiet, secure area to work. We also provide about an hour of remote training to cover the handful of items that are done differently from home such as how to connect, log into the system, and communicate with the supervisor. Every remote agent is expected to maintain a consistent level of quality and reliability that is commensurate with the call center. No unprofessional noises may be heard in the background. That’s a deal breaker.

One issue that surfaced early-on was how a remote agent could best communicate with the supervisor or with other agents if there was a question or a problem. Our Startel system had some capability for this, but there was no audible alert and you had to press the “next call” button to view the message.

Then, I learned about “Spectrum Messenger” from Telescan which is an elegant messaging program that actually fits on a floppy diskette. The program runs on any Windows PC.  There are no ads, no spam, all communications are encrypted, it works with any vendor’s TAS system, and it is suited perfectly for use over the Internet. After a free two-license trial, we purchased 25 licenses and added this messaging capability to all of our workstation positions. The ability to communicate via Spectrum Messenger has greatly enhanced the value of our remote agents. It is lightning fast and it helps keep our remote staff “connected with our group.”

When we added remote access via the Internet, security was an obvious concern. We had already installed a firewall and a virus detection system to scan every packet of data sent out or received from the Internet. To further enhance security, our remote agents are limited to the “call answer mode” part of our system. Permanent database changes that could disable or sabotage the system cannot easily be made from outside. All CSRs are required to select new alphanumeric logons and passwords for access to our system. There are no “Mary/Mary” logon/password combinations.

At MedCom, we consider working from home to be a job benefit, not something that we have to entice people to do. Our remote agents have to earn this position and work with us to help benefit everyone. We make sure that all policies and expectations are clearly communicated and that everyone understands the rules from the beginning. We presently have five remote agent positions and our most distant employee works from home 800 miles away. Two years ago if anyone had asked me if our Pennsylvania call center would ever have an employee working full-time in Georgia, I would have laughed out loud. Now we do, and she is one of our best agents.

Tom Sheridan is Vice President of MedCom Professional Services, Inc. in Philadelphia, PA.

[From Connection MagazineSeptember 2003]